Friday, April 23, 2004

Travel: educational, interesting, and sometimes disgusting

I have just finished watching the truly amazing Twirling Dervishes, and that is probably what I should be writing about. But a written description of the bright colors, vibrant energy, and exotic music that accompany the spinning Muslim dancers would fall so short of the frenzied entertaining atmosphere of the performance.

My bladder had reached capacity about 30 minutes before the show ended. I weighed my options. On the one hand I could endure the car ride back to Maadi and go to the bathroom there. Maadi is the neighborhood of the extraordinary warm and hospitable American family who have invited us to stay with them while we are in Cairo. There I would get to use the most luxuriously clean toilet that I have had the privilege to press my butt against in months. Or — I can brave the toilet at the dance venue. Cleanliness here will fall somewhere between a public bathroom at a highway rest stop and the famous bathroom scene from Train Spotting. I consulted my new American friends. They informed me that we would be going to another outing, not home. I consulted my bladder. It informed me that waiting long enough to get to our next destination was out of the questions.

I looked down the paved pathway searching for a bathroom sign. I passed Marcus, one of our friends, coming out of what I saw as the only door along the wall: must be the bathroom. Approaching the door I saw a sign: “WC” on the top and Arabic writing underneath. It’s the Train Spotting version of cleanliness that greeted me: blue tiled walls ooze with caked on filth; faucets drip into three sinks layered in brown and yellow grime; the floor is covered in a slimy thin layer of stale water; the flickering fluorescent lights cast an unnatural one-dimensional light; the high humidity has caused a coat of black mold on the ceiling. I won’t even go into the smell.

I am surprised by a man standing at a sink and the grotesque urinals hanging on a wall. I had only seen one door along the wall. I had imagined that it lead to both the men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Arabic on the sign undoubtedly said “Men”, but that was of little help to me. Strange as this may seem, I made for one of the wooden doors to a stall. It’s common in Egypt to be greeted by a person at the entrance of a bathroom who will demand payment for your use of the facilities — often in exchange for a few squares of toilet paper. On a few occasions the valet (if I can call him that) had directed me to use the stalls in the men’s bathroom if the women’s were full. This is probably why I chose to stare at my feet and go for the stall instead of leaving to look for the lady’s room.

The stall was a small room with thick walls that were just a few feet short of the ceiling. Consistent with the rest of the bathroom, each square inch was disgusting: slimy floor, bodily fluids and grime on the walls, caked-on layers of yellow-brown filth covering the toilet. Using the Touch-Nothing hover that I have perfected, I tried to get this over with as soon and as quickly as possible. Glad to be leaving, I tugged on the tiny latch touching as little of the dirty, peeling white paint on the door as possible. Nothing. The door wouldn’t budge. I pulled as hard as I could. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The big wooden door had swollen with the humidity in the room and it was solidly closed. That’s OK. I just needed more grip. There was a small groove on the side of the door. I cringed as I wedged my fingers into the sticky moist crack. There was also a gap under the door. I wedged my foot under the door and angled it upwards so I could pull from the bottom of the door too. I repeatedly tugged and jerked with my hand and foot simultaneously. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The door was so jammed that I couldn’t even get it to shake. Hum?? After a few moments I considered climbing out the gap between the ceiling and the wall, but the wall was probably 8 feet high. My guess was that if I climbed on the shaky toilet it would break long before I could escape. Eventually Geoff would come looking for me, but it probably won’t be in the men’s bathroom. I heard the voices of two Arab men speaking. Embarrassed, I knocked meekly on the door. I had no idea how to ask for help in Arabic or how to explain why I was in the men’s room. I heard the sound of water pipes rattling in the stall beside me. I felt a few drops of water, but I was mostly trying to decide if knocking harder and shouting, “Help” would get me out of there. Then I started getting rained on. I looked up and there was a jet of dirty water spitting upwards from the stall beside me. Don’t ask me how. The stream was strong enough to clear the wall of the stall. Ahhhhh! Without thinking I started to shuffle in the stall. There was no reason to. Where in the heck could I go? I climbed on the toilet yelling: “Ahhhh!” “Gross!!!” “Oh my God this is disgusting!!!!!!” And “Heeeeeeelp!!!!!!!” From the top of the toilet I started kicking the door still saying “Help — Help — Help!”. Finally one of the Arab speakers decided that if a women’s voice starts to ring out from a stall in the men’s bathroom, and the door is being kicked on, well, then he should open the door. First I heard him give a small push, then a shove, and finally he kicked the infernal thing open. More discussed than I have ever been I bowed my head in embarrassment and pushed passed him without even saying thanks.

Outside, Geoff and our new found friends started joking about how long I had been gone: “What? Did you fall in or something?” Then they noticed that not only had I been doused with water, but my face was contorted in disgust. At first I just kept walking. I didn’t know how to even begin explaining this. Eventually I started into the story, but I couldn’t finish they were laughing so hard. Our plans to get to our other outing were quickly replaced with getting me home for a shower.